Tense meetings lead Buffalo Rapids to consider mediator

By Kay Braddock

Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project may be on the look out for a new employee.  But this time rather than a ditch rider or mechanic, the irrigation district, responsible for providing irrigated water pumped from the Yellowstone River to nearly 23,000 acres of area land, isn’t seeking either. Instead members of the BR Board of Control say they’re in need of an arbitrator. 
“What I would like to see is to possibly get somebody from human services or something in here as a mediator to try to get this thing ironed out,” district 2 board member Jim Finneman suggested mid-way through last week’s regular meeting.
The proposal, seconded by district 1 member James Whitmer, comes on the heels of recent contentious meetings between board members and BR Project Manager Dave Schwarz. 
Schwarz, who agreed with Finneman that issues aren’t getting “ironed out” told members he would look into finding someone to fill the position.
Last week’s three hour meeting covered current and past issues plaguing the district, with underlying budget concerns driving the majority of the topics. 
“I think there’s a lot of things going around that are not true and I’m hearing a lot of rumors and it’s not good for this organization, as far as I’m concerned,” district 2 president Barry Rakes said. Acting as chairman of the meeting, Rakes continued, “I’m hearing that producers want the crew fired. I hear producers want Dave fired and it’s not good. And I don’t know where it’s coming from or why it’s coming, but it’s not a good deal.”
Issues raised during recent meetings, according to meeting minutes, have included BR’s insurance coverage of employees, policies regarding employees use of charge accounts and equipment, along with increasing producers’ assessment rates.
After hearing rumors regarding BR, Rakes told the other four attending members of the seven-member board that he decided to find out how other producers felt about the irrigation district and its leadership.  
“I went out in district 2 and got a consensus from district 2, a pretty good majority of them … the consensus of district 2 was we do not want Dave gone and we want our crew. They did not have a problem with Buffalo Rapids.”   
Finneman, who questioned who Rakes had spoken with, said he was “jumped” by an area producer reminding him of his “fiduciary responsibility” as a BR board member.
“I’m not trying to get rid of Dave. I don’t know where this is coming from,” Finneman said.
Whitmer said that although 25 percent of the concerns he hears from district 1 producers are “nitpicking” complaints, the remaining issues raised are valid. One issue addressed deals with producers’ concerns that too much emphasis is being put on the pipeline projects rather than maintaining laterals.
“The producers in my area have legitimate issues,” Whitmer said, noting holding biannual meetings with area producers could alleviate some of the confusion and concerns. 
Regarding the shortfalls within the budgets of district 1 and 2, Rakes said he believes much of that stems from “living on a shoe string budget” within the irrigation district. 
“We haven’t raised our assessments enough over the years,” Rakes said, noting district 2 rates haven’t been raised since 1998.
Rakes recalled one year when all overages accrued by area producers were forgiven by the district. 
Businesses cannot operate in that manner, Rakes said, adding “We’re not even charging enough for overages.” 
Noting a difference of an opinion on the need for raising assessments, member-at-large Ric Holden asked, “Have we cut this year? Have we cut the budget somewhere?”
One sticking point for some board members occurred over two years ago. 
“Seeing how there is such a point of contention about the pickup, (I) thought I would just write up a little deal so that everybody had access to the exact information on it,” Schwarz explained as he handed out a sheet explaining his purchase of a 1994 Ford pickup from the project.
The memo reads: 
“In 2004 Dave Schwarz was offered a position with Milk River irrigation districts with a salary of $66,000. When the Buffalo Rapids Board of Control was told of the offer and that Schwarz intended on accepting the position, they met in private and made a counter offer. Since they did not have adequate funds to match or come close to this amount of money, they offered a combination of an increase in pay and the use of Buffalo Rapids vehicles for personal use. That offer was accepted by Schwarz and his contract was modified to reflect that agreement. 
In September of 2006 a 2004 Ford pickup was purchased from Montana State Surplus for the sum of $16,700. …  A total of about 11,270 miles was put on it between the purchase date and the summer of 2007.”
The memo goes on to explain that in the summer of 2007 the pickup was used for his wife’s catering business, in accordance with the agreement between BR and Schwarz. After complaints were raised about this, research showed that it was against state law to use public equipment for personal gain. When this matter was brought up to the board, then President of the Board of Control Ray Strasheim met with attorney Dale Hubber to address the matter. 
The memo goes on to read, “Mr. Hubber suggested that BRP sell the pickup to Schwarz in lieu of compensation for $1.00. At an ensuing board meeting, the board and Schwarz agreed to this arrangement and the Board of Control voted unanimously to remove the clause from Schwarz’s contract in regard to using BRP equipment/vehicles for personal use and sell the 2004 pickup to Schwarz for $1 in lieu of monetary compensation.”
Rakes pointed to the water rates of other districts, noting BR’s was comparable.
“People we have a pretty darn good project. I think its one of the proudest projects in the state and you can go up and down anywhere in the state and we got one of the best ones. … We should be proud of what we’ve done in the last 10 – 15 years, since Dave got here,” Rakes said.

Published Sept. 16, 2009

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